The burden of coming out to family

Rachel Wambui talks to a few gay people about the burden of coming out to their closest ones – their families. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • “The first person I officially came out to was my elder brother. My parents had been dead for 10 years then. I was 26. We were out on the terrace, having morning coffee and a cigarette. He and I have always been close. I had thought of a million ways to have this conversation with him but never seemed to have the right words or opportunity.”

Gladys is a 27-year-old gay woman. Sporting fitting khaki pants, a t-shirt, low-heeled boots and dreadlocks arranged in a tight, low bun there’s nothing about her appearance that expresses her sexual identity.

When we first meet, she lets out occasional nervous grunts, choosing her words carefully – trying to ‘feel me out’ before deciding whether to open up. She is a closeted lesbian, and this is not a topic she discusses with strangers.

After about 30 minutes of guarded, ice-breaker conversation, we discuss author Binyavanga Wainaina’s coming-out story, which helps us glide into the matter at hand, “That was such a big deal for me,” Gladys says.

“He’s not just any Kenyan. He’s an icon. So on the one hand, I felt validated because in a society where homosexuality is seen as a deficiency and nothing else but, here was someone who is respected the world over.

Once people find out you are gay, they put a scarlet letter on your forehead such that all your other abilities and human attributes become non-existent.

I don’t think it’s possible to do that with someone like Binyavanga. Being gay is not the definition of my existence but for an ‘average’ girl like me, if I come out, it just might. I’m afraid of that. “

A graduate student at a private university in Nairobi, Gladys says she has no intention of coming out to her family. “I feel that I will not be afforded the same protection that people of stature or from a liberalised setting are afforded. My mother is 62 years old.

She and I have never discussed sex, let alone homosexuality. Recently, my 13-year-old nephew picked up an interest in playing guitar. This older guy in their neighbourhood has a guitar so my nephew went to his place a lot. So my mum says to me, ‘I sent your sister some money to buy Joe a guitar because I don’t like the idea of him spending all that time in that man’s place; especially not with this homosexual nonsense going around’. This was said in mother-tongue so the slurs are lost in translation. How do I even begin telling my mother, who thinks guitar lesson between two boys is a risk for homosexual orientation, that I, her youngest daughter, am gay?”


Brian, 30, is the lastborn in a family of seven siblings; one brother and five sisters. Their parents are deceased. To him, the issue of whether to come out as gay to his family was and still causes him internal conflict.

“The first person I officially came out to was my elder brother. My parents had been dead for 10 years then. I was 26. We were out on the terrace, having morning coffee and a cigarette. He and I have always been close. I had thought of a million ways to have this conversation with him but never seemed to have the right words or opportunity.”

But a new and openly gay friend had provided the impetus for Brian to get it done with, “so I stuttered, ‘what would you say if I told you I was gay?’ As soon as it came out, I thought it sounded stupid. I didn’t have the guts to make the statement ‘I am gay’.

What that question really meant was ‘would you hate me if I told you I was gay?’ I was so nervous; if my closest brother rejected me, there’s no saying what the rest of the family would do.”


Brian says his brother went quiet for a minute, lit another cigarette and said with a grunt, ‘dude, I kind of suspected, but I wasn’t sure’. He then said something that diminished the glimmer of hope that had arisen in Brian’s spirit. “He said, very casually, ‘no problem, just be careful man, I don’t want to walk around with people telling me my brother is a fag’. He was okay with me being gay, just as long as I didn’t broadcast it and embarrass the family.”   

After days of requests and declines, Brian’s brother finally agreed to a phone interview with me. “At first, it was unsettling because in as much as I suspected it, it’s not the same as when it is confirmed. There was safety in not knowing. I told him it was okay because he’s my brother and I love him. But I told him to take care so that he doesn’t get into trouble with other people. You know how people will react, so why cause a stir? Just do your thing in private and in peace.”

Both Gladys and Brian are in agreement that being in the closet isn’t necessarily an easier way out. “When I first realised I was attracted to women I was about 14,” Gladys says. “I tried to suppress it. I was ashamed. You hear a lot of us who ‘tried to be straight’ because of the shame. In high school, I got saved, I dated boys… but I also fell into depression because it just wouldn’t go away.”

When she joined university and became more exposed to the LGBT movement in the world through the Internet, she began to accept herself. “I remember standing in front of the mirror and trying to say it to myself, but the words ‘I am gay’ choked in my throat. I couldn’t say it to myself, let alone to someone else. The day I finally said it in front of the mirror, first I felt relief, then uncertainty. How do I proceed from here? I never have, really.” 

Brian believes all of his siblings support him but with a big ‘but’: “I get the feeling that they are disappointed – that they are okay with homosexuality but they would just rather it wasn’t me. One of the things that caused a stir was when I started dating. My sister, who’s now the head of the family, actually told me I could see him but not bring him around the house.”


Of all the African celebrity coming-out stories he has heard, Brian says he relates to Somali award-winning author Osman Diyire the most. In one of his short stories, Diyire writes on his coming-out, “The Somali community is all about tradition and that sense of tradition comes with an air of secretiveness, suppression and Puritanism… I had no desire to live in secrecy.” Diyire’s conservative, religious brothers issued death threats, leaving him estranged from his family for years.

Years later, living in London and enjoying the fruits of a thriving literal career, he received an unexpected phone call from his father in Somalia. His father said, “Osman, I saw your work online and I read somewhere that you’ve had a difficult life. What is this difficult life you speak of? You’ve had a good life … this gay business that you mention is something I don’t understand. When you told me that you were gay several years ago I assumed it was the mental illness speaking… this is not your custom, we have a faith…I cannot accept this.”

Brian, who has had struggles with addiction and mental illness, has had similar conversations. “After I had been a few months sober and drug-free, my eldest sister said, ‘Now that you are no longer using drugs and alcohol, maybe you’ll ‘straighten out’. The thing about it is that she was genuinely trying to help; she’s the one who paid for my rehab. She will do anything to help her kid bother ‘get over’ this. Sometimes I feel guilty for her suffering.”   

Jonathan, a 30-year-old social worker has had it easier than most homosexuals in Africa. Raised by a mother he describes as liberal, Jonathan, who’s in a two-year open relationship with another man, says his mum has been nothing but supportive. “I first told her when I was 17,” he says. He had known he was gay for a year. “She listened carefully. Then she demanded to know why I had taken so long to tell her. She was angry, not because I was gay, but because I hadn’t told her.”

Mother and son show up for our interview together. They laugh easily at each other’s jokes but there is a touch of sensitiveness when his mother talks about it. “It didn’t matter to me what he is or isn’t,” she says, “but when he told me, I was sort of sad. Not because I was against it, but because I knew how much harder his life was going to be and how much hate he was going to get, especially because he is open. My siblings and I grew up in Europe and I guess that has made us a little open-minded. But we live in Kenya and it has on occasion been said by some that his ‘disposition’ is a result of my poor parenting.”

Jonathan’s mother admits that her son’s sexuality has been the elephant in the room during some family functions. “My brothers and sisters and their children are okay. But my older aunties and uncles can be very ‘incorrect’; like this instance when the male cousins were being delegated for a task and Jonathan was left out. To them, he is not a man. Look at him; doesn’t he look like a man to you?” Tall, burly Jonathan sits back, shakes his head and sips his beer. He has let his mother do most of the talking. “It’s interesting to hear her side of the story,” he says. “Actually, until now, I didn’t know that she had these sadness and worry.”

For Brian, coming out is ultimately about being comfortable in one’s skin – and having family give you the space to do so. “The choice is always between what’s more important to me; freedom or conforming? I’m at peace with the fact that they’ll probably never get me; now it’s more about me getting myself.”




 In conventional African society, owning up to a homosexual orientation comes at a cost. And it can be doubly difficult for family members to accept one’s orientation. Psychologist Dr Lillian Wambura explains that while some family members have a willingness to understand, they just don’t have the conditioning to process the information. “Set cultural and religious beliefs will not allow them to open their minds. They will go through something similar to the stages of grief: shock and denial, perhaps by asking questions such as ‘are you sure?’ or saying things like ‘no way!?’ or by simply ignoring it. Some stay in this stage forever. Then comes the guilt and pain; a parent might wonder what they did wrong while raising their child.”

This stage can be mixed up with anger, lashing out or threatening the gay person with consequences for their ‘behaviour’. “This is followed by a period of ‘loneliness and reflection, the longest and toughest period of the process. It’s when you hear people say they haven’t spoken to their parents for years. If the parties are lucky, this might be followed by a period of rebuilding,  a turnaround in either party’s perception and you find that they are beginning to ‘hear each other out’. But this is a very gradual process.”